C.G. Gunderson’s: Travels in the Afterlife – Chapter 4 (Prose)

Chapter 4:

Why Are You Here?

The river ran green with the canopy’s reflection. It tasted sweet, but not in an overwhelming, Willy Wonka sort of way. More like those fruit flavoured water bottles you can get, subtle and short-lived on the tongue. They still have that flavoured water, right? [Yeah.] What year is it, anyway? [Twenty-Seventeen. What year did you think it was?] Oh, wow. It doesn’t matter.

My whole body tingled under the sherbet caress of that heavenly stream as it washed away the remains of the recent past. No matter how much I drank, it seemed never to be enough. Silica simply watched over me and smiled a practiced shallow-crescent smile. That was his name, or so he said. ‘Silica Milligan’ – a strange moniker, but who was I to talk? He didn’t blink much, and when he did it seemed a little performative, as if to say ‘Look at me blinking. Aren’t I so normal?’.

‘So how does it feel?’, he probed with puppy-like tilted head after a long enough time had passed.

‘Like being alive again’, I sighed.

[But I thought-]

I know! I’m getting to it.

My whole body froze on the spot, right hand aiming an automatic finger at Silica’s widening grin, my jaw agape at its own productions. I had spoken! For the first time in what felt like a hundred lifespans, out of nowhere, I did it.

‘Heeuurrrhhh’, I spluttered in triumph.

‘Aaeuu—-‘, and it was gone as quickly as it had come.

Silica laughed hartily right in my beffudled face, using his strong, immaculate voice like a prick.

‘Hahaha’, he pricked, ‘you nearly had it’.

A maelstrom of emotion must have been visible in my expression as I leapt from the stream and aimed to tackle him from the fallen ivory trunk on which he perched. ‘Friend’, he called himself. I knew he possessed the answers I wanted, and he bloody well knew I wanted them too. What kind of friend makes fun of someone like that? Did he not understand, after watching me cower and prostrate in that filthy cave for weeks on end, that I was a suffering soul? I didn’t need laughter. I needed a fix. I needed him to tell me how to make all this insane magical bullshit go away once and for all.

He sidestepped me with ease, of course. I was less than a novice in this world of imagination, and he seemed to me a master beyond comprehension. Every single function of my body and mind felt clunky and unrefined in his presence, while his actions appeared to me those of a god in human form. He could see my future and anticipate my every thought, while his intentions were as opaque to me as a laser pointer’s to a cat.

As I rose from the floor in defeat, he tossed me the feathered rag he had introduced earlier. Still chuckling to himself, he shot a conciliatory glance my way. I put on the stupid loin cloth and stood facing him with all the indignance of a mortally offended teenager, my own ridiculousness finally beginning, somewhere deep inside my soul, to dawn on me.

‘You know, a voice is a funny thing. It’s not just some random air passing through fleshy bagpipes. It’s not just an incidental tumor that grew on the great prostate of human evolution. Voices create the world. Each one is as unique and irreplaceable as a coral reef. You can’t just expect to remake it out of nothing, especially not here’, he gestured around at the shimmering forest. ‘You’ve been damaged, young Seejie, whether you feel it or not, and you need time to heal.’

‘You can hardly order a flower to grow faster, and you can’t expect your voice to return with just a snap of the fingers. The invisible ecosystem of voices is as delicate and fluctuating as the biosphere of our own planet. But don’t get too down about it, my friend. When a voice dies out, we get miserable and tell ourselves it’s gone for good, as though the waves in the ocean miss each other when they break, as though an acorn sheds a tear for an oak tree. You might as well mourn the passing of day into night. Worry not, for in the rich soil of human experience, new voices will grow ever in time.’

He side-glanced and made a note of my incredulous expression. Sighing a little, he continued, ‘You’re a philistine, C.G. Gunderson, stodgy to the core, but stick with me and you might just start to get an inkling of a clue…’.

The ensuing lecture condescended long into the night as we wandered alongside the wondrous river. Perhaps the most one-sided conversation that ever took place. We walked the forest and I busied myself intentionally misunderstanding the wisdom he was trying to impart. Fuck his wisdom. There was obviously some trick to it, some special skill or counter-intuitive solution that he wasn’t telling me about. How had he done it? Maybe he made a deal with someone important, or ate a strange fruit, discovered some sort of secret training, or maybe he managed to avoid the mutilation I’d received all-together. That was probably it. That jammy bastard.

Many miles from where we cut our path, another voice was booming, reverberating into the quivering morning air, and chasing away the peaceful atmosphere that night had left behind.

[Hang on a minute!]

Will you stop interrupting me?! I thought I made it clear that this isn’t a collaboration. I speak, you write. That’s it. We’re losing precious seconds, so if you raise one more syllable at me, I swear I’m going to cut off your head and finish the story in your blood!

[No! No, I’ve had it! That’s the problem, right there. Why don’t you just write the bloody book yourself in the first place?! Why am I even necessary to this stupid drama of yours? How can you say we’re wasting precious time when you just spent the last hour describing trees and mountains to me? And how the hell are you able to know what was happening miles away from your location in a goddamn first person narrative? None of it makes any sense. It didn’t happen. You’re a mental case, and I’m going home!]

As the coward rushed to his feet, I flashed forward and grabbed the manuscript and pen from his treacherous fingers before he could toss them down the hillside, never to be found in the wild undergrowth. The midday sun still posed high above us, unclouded, casting down the sort of rays that slow each moment to an indolent crawl on an English Summer’s day, the sort of rays that teach you a lesson if you try to think too fast. I continued to scribble blindly from where he’d left off, afraid to miss a detail, while glaring down upon my captive.

I gave him my scariest, most glowering and bloodthirsty look, as if what he’d just said had somehow proven my ultimate victory over him. Even though he was on his feet and had finally said a fraction of his piece, I knew he remained deeply unnerved, that it still felt to him as if he would never be able to take the advantage in our strange combat. I was the master, and him the neophyte. I could see him thinking about running away.

‘Don’t even think about running away!’, I warned, ‘you’re too fat. I’m agile and I’ll catch you. You know it’s true.’

‘You need to stop doubting me and try to listen’, I urged. I actually did feel bad for the guy, even if he had brought all this upon himself by choosing to exist.

‘I already told you why I need you. As soon as our paths crossed, you became part of the story. You’re in it now. You can’t escape, try as you might. I travelled from the world beyond to be with you here on this hillside, and even though you don’t know it yet you were there with me too on all my travels. Both our lives are trapped forever in these unwritten pages, and we’ll cease to exist if we fail to fill them before my immortal memory abandons me. You and I are running out of time…’

Something very obvious suddenly occurred to me, and I was taken a little aback. ‘What is your name, anyway?’

[I don’t have a name. Just call me Pen. That’s all I am to you. He was completely right about my flabbiness. There was no way I’d outrun that lean wanker, and we both knew it. I reached out for the book and slumped back against the grass in total defeat, my uprising swiftly quelled, my cathartic rebellion completely flaccid in the end. Well, at least some of the tension seemed to have been released. The air was lighter, and I felt somehow more substantial than before, more real. I breathed a deep sigh, and for the first time that day I began to laugh. He watched me like someone interestedly observing a wild animal they’ve never seen before. Soon the moment was over, however. Duty triumphed over levity, and his wicked tale resumed.]

Anyway, many miles away through the trees, in a primitive amphitheatre of the ancient Greek style, sat upon a throne of wet mud and sharp flints, a broken man recited his broken mantra.

‘I am a failure and a disappointment in every conceivable way’, he moaned, ‘I am the man that will save the world.’

‘I am a worthless insect and I carry disease amongst the gods’, He lashed, ‘I am the man that will save the world.’

‘I deserve only pain and my words should be ignored for all eternity’, he remonstrated, ‘I am the man that will save the world.’

The boundaries of his little arena were like a prehistoric defensive wall – sticks and stones, clay, and plant fibres tangled and conjoined like a child’s fort, held together by make-believe alone. His seat of power rose from the centre of a perilous platform built of bound logs and packed dirt. Facing him on the opposite side of the colosseum were an arrangement of large boulders which could only be intended as benches for an audience.

Seated around the yard were perhaps three or four dozen enraptured individuals, watching our speaker’s performance with great interest. Some stared, prayer-handed, with intense scrutiny upon the man, while others screwed their eyes shut and rocked back and forth as though physically resonating with his words. Others still had expressions so corpse-like that if it weren’t for their heaving lungs you would assume they had simply expired without averting their gaze. Hands wobbled, heads jerked, feet tapped, and all that was missing from this makeshift tabernacle was the aged organ player.

Face lowered and pounding his palms against his body, the ringmaster’s flagellative chanting continued for a very long time, randomly rising and falling in intensity. His voice became shrill and wavering. His knees quivered and his fingers gripped what was left of his sloppily shaven hair. Eventually, in a tantrum of flailing paroxysms, he rose to his feet, aimed his voice at the sky and triumphantly screamed, ‘I am a disgusting, evil and worthless creature! And I am the man who will save this world!’

These final words melting into the atmosphere, he allowed silence to fill the auditorium. A sad smile of understanding crossed his lips, and he dropped his fervid gaze to focus on the poor souls who he knew had come to him seeking wisdom, purpose, and a better life. Surveying them grimly, he spoke in a measured tone quite different from before:

‘Let’s address the reason that you’re here, shall we? You’ve come seeking answers. Well, here they are: The only path to enlightenment is to stop seeking it. The meaning of life is as a mischievous dog being chased across a field. The more you run after it, call it to heel, and order it around, the more it will evade you, the more fun the game becomes. Many things can be true at once. You believe you can think your way to the truth, but you can’t. All language is metaphor. It describes the world, but any truth worth knowing can never be expressed in words, as words can only ever refer to themselves. Truth is the vastness of space, the rumbling of thunder overhead, a loved one’s dying breath. You are not what you think. You are the whole world, believing yourself only to be a small part of itself, a single bubble in a vast ocean, seemingly self-contained. The act of forgiveness, in its truest sense, means only to recognise that fact. Heaven, hell, God, and the devil exist only within the human soul. We experience these things in every moment of our lives, though we may not always realise it, and there is no escape. We, all of us, died and were reborn, and even still there is no escape. Wishing to be free from existence will not bring you sweet oblivion, only eternal suffering. There is no such thing as the past and the future, only the everlasting moment that we call ‘Now’. It might sound like nihilism, but freedom and the experience of meaning exist on the other side of the realisation that your treasured little life will leave as much of a permanent imprint on the universe as a single amoeba’s contribution to biology. You are at once the complete lack of any significance and the centre of all that matters in the world.’

He paused for breath and to take a good look at the crowd gathered before him. Each day a few newcomers arrived, diverse in appearance and uniform in foolishness. Miles to the east, a determined eagle traversed the infinite sky, carrying in its claws a silk handkerchief. The cloth brushed gently across the ever-so-slightly rounded tip of one olympian peak, nestled among thousands.

‘Well… why are you still here? I’ve given you the answers that you came for. Do you not trust in my wisdom? Piss off then. It’s the best I’ve got. You came to me, O pathetic followers of mine. You built this temple around me, raised my holy arse up upon this pulpit of muck. I never asked you to. We are dead. All of us, dead. Why do you come back each day? Why is it that more of you come to me each morning than the last, expecting, wanting, misunderstanding? Speak to me!’

The man, swiftly transforming into a prophet of rage, leapt suddenly down to the ground and began to walk accusingly amongst his congregation.

‘I tell you over and again the nature of truth, the path I’ve walked, the world I see. I must be onto something, huh, else why am I the only one amongst you with a voice to speak? Can you not hear me? Do you not understand my words? I’m telling you: Stop thinking! Stop wanting! Stop wondering! And you’ll regain the power of speech. You will have peace, love, truth, beauty, and wisdom. Leave this place, never look back, and the infinite world will be yours! We’re dead, you idiots! Dead! Why are you here?!’

These last words, spat into the face of a middle-aged man of average stature, were followed instantly by the thundering of fists upon his sweaty face. The priestly man with the booming voice rained down hammering blows upon the innocent. Gripping his shoulder as his legs gave out, he followed him to the ground, scattershot punches, elbows and knees landing everywhere. The beaten man responded only with complete surrender as his head was smashed again and again upon the rock like a gorilla opening a coconut. The savage beating continued nonetheless. His ribs were stomped and his ankles pulverised until he resembled a person turned inside-out.

Face caked in gore, he wiped the clots from his eyes to look again at his captive audience. Not a single thing had changed. Men and women stood and sat. Hands still wobbled, heads rocked in penitence, the screwball zombies breathed an empty breath. His anger grew and grew. He continued to rant and rave about the meaning of life as handfuls of wet mud were lobbed into eyes, stones were thrown which split the skin, powerful attacks broke the bodies of those in the arena. Not a word was spoken nor fist raised in response as his teeth sank again and again into human flesh. Time passed, and eventually he was left standing quite alone in the sinking centre of a quagmire of putrid death.

He breathed heavily, feeling the weight of his body, looked up at the blinding sun, and began to weep. ‘Why?’, he spilled, ‘Why am I here?’

He stood there for what must have been hours, his nostrils absorbing the wet stink of the truth. By the time peace had returned to his soul, the dusk was coming on. He picked up his feet from the scarlet quicksand all about him, now congealed and adhering to the skin. Surveying his work once more, he turned away and sighed, ‘See you tomorrow’.

As he slumped away towards the back of the stage, aiming for the cleansing spray of the nearby waterway, he heard in the distance something unexpected, something he had not heard in countless long years in that place. He could hardly believe his senses, but there it was. The voice of a stranger carried itself towards him on the wind.

‘Aahhh, anyway, that’s enough about me. You must be getting sick of hearing me waffle on. Tell me a little bit about yourself, Seejie… oh wait! Hahahaha.’

End of Chapter 4

Written – Early 2021

Published – August 2021

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

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